Feds 'call timeout' on drones


Drone in flight
Photo Credit: Vince LoPresti

The National Park Service has placed a temporary ban on the use of all unmanned aircrafts on lands administered by the agency. The interim policy went into effect Wednesday and will apply until an official ruling has been set.

The interim ban prohibits the launching, landing and operation of unmanned aircrafts from National Park Service land.

“What we’re doing is calling a timeout,” said Jeffrey Olson, a National Park Service spokesman.

The decision comes after mounting concerns over the sudden increase in use of unmanned aircrafts throughout national parks and their impact on natural resources, as well as the public and park employees’ safety. “There’s been a dramatic growth in the parks and throughout the U.S. of unmanned aircraft,” said Wendy Janssen, superintendent of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, based in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. “In some cases, they’ve resulted in noise complaints from park users. In one case, animals were harassed.”

In September 2013, a drone flew over nearly 2,000 visitors seated in the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater in South Dakota. The drone was immediately confiscated.

In April 2014, rangers caught tourists harassing a herd of bighorn sheep in Utah’s Zion National Park. The drone was apparently separating the adults from the young. The incident prompted Zion officials to issue this statement:

“Rangers have seen a large increase in the use of drones within the park. Some visitors have complained about drones interrupting the usual peace of Zion’s soundscape and wilderness, while others have reported feeling unsafe as drones buzz through slot canyons and along exposed trails such as Angels Landing and Canyon Overlook. The recent observation of the bighorn sheep encounter with a drone also demonstrates the negative impact they can have on the wildlife within Zion National Park, particularly in the spring when many animals are caring for their young. In addition to impacting ground-based wildlife, drones may prevent birds from successfully nesting or many cause nests to be abandoned if the birds feel harassed.”

Despite these incidents, drone use at national parks continued to increase. On June 15, a Phantom 2 was recorded flying through Alaska’s Denali National Park. National Park Service’s Kris Fister, a Denali spokeswoman, said that they had video evidence of the drone flying over a mew gull nesting area.

“The gulls shown in the video were nesting — their nests are directly on the bare gravel/rocks off the river’s gravel bars, in this case the Savage River,” Fister told Ars Technica. “The video doesn’t illustrate the disturbance, as it doesn’t show the aftermath, but the nesting area was closed to all entry to prevent disturbance, so the drone violated the closure.

Earlier this summer, a drone crashed into a marina at Yellowstone Lake. And just weeks ago, a camera-equipped drone crashed into the Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest of the park’s geothermal springs.

Olson added that unmanned aircrafts have also been in such close proximity to climbers at Yosemite that they are becoming a serious danger.

“We’re not saying they can never be used, we’re just saying time out until we look at this more closely,” Olson said.

That will likely take about 18 months, during which the National Park Service will evaluate the use of drones and determine specific areas where the unmanned aircrafts will be allowed. But for now, if an individual is caught flying a drone over one of the 84 million acres managed by the National Park Service, he or she will be issued a citation ranging from $100 to $200. The drone itself may even be confiscated.

“The Park Service isn’t against drones,” Olson said. “But for some that use the National Park system, they can be a little unnerving. We’re going to need some time to determine how to safely avoid that in the future.”

As previously reported, when it comes to drone-assisted hunting, many state Game Commissions have bans in place, and drones have even been used to spy on hunters and capture footage of them for PETA videos. For an in-depth look at the issue, see our feature article Do drones belong on the hunt? by Steve Alderman. 


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